Monday, April 18, 2005

Why Roy G. Biv Ruined Everything

A conversation, reproduced more or less verbatim.
Guy I know: So I guess you're not voting Student's Party, huh?
Me: Why would you say that?
Guy I know: Your shirt. It's orange.
Me: So?
Guy I know: All the Student's Party people are wearing green.

[I stare blankly.]

Guy I know: And orange is the opposite of green.
Me: No, red is the opposite of green.

[Guy I know stares blankly]

Me: You know. Like on the color wheel.

[ Guy I know stares blankly. ]

Me: Like how in the spectrum, every primary color's opposite is the combination of the two other primary colors? Like blue and orange? And yellow and purple? Like that?
Guy I know: Ah, but there's the problem.
Me: What?
Guy I know: What about indigo?

[ I bite the inside of my cheek. ]
Oh Roy G. Biv. You fucked us all up. You, whose name would appear to be a handy mnemonic device for remembering the colors of the rainbow, actually trick people into forming some very deluded ideas about the spectrum and colors in general.

The biggest problem with old Roy lies in the middle of his last name. Indigo really has no place in the spectrum. I've heard different theories on how indigo got there to begin with. Some blame Galileo, who observed the chromatic spectrum and balked when he counted six visible frequencies of light because six is number of beast — it approaches the divine number seven but falls just short, much like how Satan challenged God. Other people blame Isaac Newton, who arbitrarily stuck indigo in there to make the colors match up with the other neat groups of seven: seven days in a week, the seven notes in an octave (counting the repeated start-and-end note as one note, not two), the seven planets known at the time, the seven wonders of the ancient world and silly lists like these.

Either way, indigo doesn't belong. Indigo is a stupid color. Scientifically, it only occupies 20 short nanometers in wavelength — specifically 440 to 420. (Violet, conversely, occupies nearly twice that range.) It gets its name from the indigo dye, which itself is a poorly defined additive that can be extracted from a variety of plants — specifically woad and dyer's knotweed, according to the Wikipedia.

But I feel like any person who looks at the matter logically would conclude that indigo doesn't belong, even if they didn't know its history of lameness. The six-color spectrum makes more sense, at least superficially. It accounts for the three basic colors — red, yellow and blue if you're talking about pigment and red, green and blue if you're talking about light — and the three secondary colors that result from mixing two of the primaries — purple, green and orange if you're talking about pigment and cyan, magenta and yellow if you're talking about light. If you include indigo, you might as well include turquoise, chartreuse and scarlet too, because they're just as spectrum-worthy. Like indigo, these are just subtle variations along the spectrum.

The funny part about Roy G. Biv, however, is teaching it to kids as a means of remembering the rainbow prevents them from thinking about color in any other way. So while the six-color spectrum works, it in itself can be deconstructed as an arbitrary system of classification.

First of all, because color is a spectrum, you don't actually have to start at red. You can start anywhere. Hell, go nuts and start with fucking indigo. It doesn't matter because as you move from color to color you eventually end up back where you started. (I realize, of course, that "Oyg B. Ivr" doesn't mean much to English-speakers, but please disregard that for a moment.)

Furthermore, "red" itself is actually poorly defined. Where does red end? When does it yellow or blue overpower it and turn the hue into orange or purple? Is maroon a variation on red or a color in its own right? Depending on what the context or the viewer, it's no so easy to say. Scientifically, red's wavelength range spans from 630 to 670. It comes first because it's one of the lowest frequencies of light the eye can perceive, but red doesn't really have to end where red ends. If the scientists studying light and color — chromaticians? — so chose, they could have just divided up the visible spectrum into five sections instead of six. red would stretch just a little bit farther than we're used to used to, and then the other four colors could claim an equal share. We could eliminate a whole color — I nominate purple — though I would suppose that the old system of color names could just as easily be ditched for five new nonsense words. I nominate floop, blorp, sanam, hasan and aemon.

For example:

All the colors edge out just a little bit more than they normally would. You have to mentally accept a different "middle color" for each label and then remember how far the variations on that color go and you're all set with your new five-color spectrum. (The color aemon, for example, spans from what we would call true red all the way to deep maroon.)

This isn't really a revolutionary idea, however. I remember learning in a linguistics class that a lot of cultures don't use our model for color. (The more likely a culture is to study light waves scientifically, however, the more likely they would use it.) Some peoples only use a four-color model, and I remember one Native American group that just lumped all hues into two categories that best translated as "earth color" and "sky color" but means something along the lines of how we think of warm colors and cool colors. As a result, our words for color often don't translate well when dealing with certain groups. (In English, for example, the sun is yellow. In Drewspeak, the sun is sanam, but so is, say, an apricot or the inside of a lime. In English, an apricot would be a lighter shade of orange and the melon a light shade of green.)

Anyway, my point with all this is that the divisions along the spectrum in any context are basically arbitrary. My dad, for example, can't spot the difference between purple and blue and as a result will sometimes purchase some truly hideous "blue" shirts. He's the product of the apparently color-challenged New Zealand school system.

For practical purposes, maybe Roy G. Biv shouldn't be abolished, but I do think people should realize that Roy represents just one way to look at it. And, also, that indigo is a stupid, stupid color.


  1. Anonymous1:50 AM

    lookin at a color wheel, i'd guess the opposite of indigo would be some yellowish orangish color. also without indigo we wouldn't have the indigo girls

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. What? I never said anything. I'm so confused.

  4. Anonymous10:06 PM

    as a sidenote, the greek color spectrum ranged from dark to light, so the color blue was simply considered a dark color. -aemon

  5. Anonymous10:08 PM

    sorry morgan, I was about to post a comment to drew about how he was the sun in my book as well, when I realized I was logged in under your name, which is why I deleted it.

    my profuse apologies all around.

  6. What the hell is going on? Who is -- or isn't -- posting? Is Sanam trolling for sodomy again?

  7. Anonymous11:33 AM

    you know I apparently just can't get enough. -zanampitri

  8. Oh man, you're like, always coming up when I search for my blog name, drewspeak. ( I envy your google magick, sir.

  9. 5 years later, I'd just like to point out that "Guy [you] know"'s initial statement about orange and green being opposites might have been a reference to religious conflicts in Ireland, perhaps, thus making him Not Entirely Wrong.